Thursday, June 29, 2017

Bicycles, kids, Hamburg

Back in Hamburg.
Bicycles in a local school
When you see children pouring out of the local Hamburg primary school on their bikes you realise what Australian children are missing. Bikes give kids a sense of control over their transport as well as being a great exercise machine. In the current cold wet weather the kids ride by in yellow waterproof capes that cover both them and their bags.

Bikes are everywhere, ridden not only by the young but by all ages including the very old.

They also pop up in unlikely places. The all-green bike below is an ad for music lessons (the red sign says "Learn an instrument " ). It stands outside the Laeiszhalle Concert Hall.

Bike locked to a rail on the steps to a shop.
In Leipzig bicyclists power along, travelling really fast along city streets, stopping at red lights with the cars, then setting off again to pedal fast when the lights change.  Bike speed probably reflects population age, as Leipzig is a university town.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Robert Stadler

When I bought my ticket for the Dresden gallery for sculpture and fine arts, I was offered a ticket to the show in the building  next door as well, a show by called 'You may also like: Robert Stadler.'  I had poked my head in the door on my way to the gallery and had seen that it was a one room show which didn't look terribly promising. But I bought the dual ticket just in case. I am glad I did because looks can be deceving. Like the title of the show, Stadlers 'art’ (or craft?) is thoughtful and memorable. He takes everyday objects and changes them, making comments on society and how we organise our lives.

I particularly liked his dissolving plastic chair. He said he made it because he hated the ubiquitous plastic chairs that are just everywhere. I think he'd like them to decompose organically, but like everything plastic they don't. They just break and become a problem.
Disappearing plastic chair by Robert Stadler
Another of his works struck me particularly, mainly because it reminded me of a childhood incident. Stadler had made a  monkey with very large pink balls,  a comment on what we find embarrassing and don't like talking about.

The three silent staff members who stood like statues for the half hour (or was it longer) that I slowly meandered around the room might have smiled as I chuckled. I don't know as I was too engrossed with the monkey.

When I was a kid there was a very prudish Minister​ of the church who called in to say hello  occasionally. I remember him drinking tea  with us one day. We were  being very proper (we were four children) when the talk turned to zoos. I think we must have recently visited a zoo as my  youngest sister looked up at this Minister  and very earnestly informed him that “ the baboon had a red bottom!”. The embarrassment factor must be why I remember the incident to this day. I'm not sure whether he or we were more embarrassed, but most likely my sister once she discovered that you don't talk about bottoms as you drink tea with a Minister.
Robert Stadler's Monkey with large balls.

As I left the gallery that day I congratulated the nearest staff member on their ability to stand motionless for so long. She laughed and looked appreciative. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Rescuing 'Die Frau ohne Schatten'

Opera is a live performance and live performances have their problems. We should probably wonder why they don't fail more often than they do.

The third and final opera I saw in Leipzig was Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauß and the problem they had was that Jennifer Wilson, the dramatic soprano who was to sing the role of the Dyers Wife, called in sick two days before the show. Not many people can sing this role - it is extraordinarily demanding and requires a certain type of voice - well, the voice of a dramatic soprano.

Leipzig opera was very lucky though. The Russian dramatic soprano  Elena Pankratowa is studying the role for Munich and found time (flying in from another engagement a couple of hours before the curtain went up) to sing the role in Leipzig.

She sung it from the score, standing to the side of the stage where the audience could see her. The role was 'acted’ by one of the staff, though acted is too strong a word really. The substitute dressed in approximately the clothes the Dyers Wife would wear and moved to the spots where the singer would have stood.

It was a good tactic, because you could see the emotion of the actual singer at the same time as you saw where she was meant to be.

The substitute moved about the stage like a wooden doll and this lack of acting made you realise how much you depend on real acting by the singers to bring their roles alive. It was a fascinating experience and a  rewarding insight. Elena Pankratowa got a huge ovation and it wasn't only gratitude that she had made the effort to come to Leipzig but a sincere appreciation of her singing. It is such a demanding role, and she sang it wonderfully well. 
'Frau ohne Schatten' cast take their bows
with Elena Pankratowa in the pink stole (middle right)
My only previous contact with the opera was listening to a YouTube recording of a friend singing one of the Dyers Wife pieces. The Dyers Wife is unhappy and it shows in her singing so I had been prepared for a discordant opera that I mightn't much like.  I was surprised to discover how very beautiful the music is (I am sure having Ulf Schirmer conducting helped), particularly the part of Barak, the Dyer, sung by Franz  Grundheber.  I'll remember Barak, the Dyer, long after I have forgotten many other singers.

Now I understand why Die Frau ohne Schatten is called Strauß's best opera and why it is so often performed. I just count myself lucky that this, my first experience, was with such an accomplished cast and orchestra.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Leipzig- present and past

This is my favourite photo of Leipzig. It seems to encapsulate the city. Music and musicians are so much part of Leipzig but so is being lively and different.

Leipzig has many layers though. Not far from where this musician is playing are two museums devoted to the often difficult history of the city.

One of them is called the Forum - it is free and is devoted to contemporary German history since 1945. It is several stories and full of information about former East Germany and what it was like to live there.
Russian uniform (front) and East German uniform
It felt as if the city father's wanted to be sure the upcoming generation were informed of their past.

The Forum seems to be circular and is easy to get lost in. There are so many corners of video screens, displays and posters I felt rather overwhelmed. I guess I'd read a lot of it already, one way or another.

I decided a maze of DDR paraphernalia was all too much early in the morning but I couldn't find the exit and had to ask how to get out.
Stalin-at the Leipzig Forum

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mendelssohn House

I had not intended to visit Mendelssohn House in Leipzig, but after being so moved by his Oratorium I decided to see where it was written.
Mendelssohn House, Leipzig
Mendelssohn House is within easy walking distance of the Leipzig Oper so was a no-brainer really. The house is large and imposing, as expected, with an elegant interior but without any of the embellishments that the wealthy surround themselves with nowadays.  Polished wood floors and a small music room where Mendelssohn probably spent most of his time. I found the house aesthetically pleasing.
Music room at Mendelssohn House
Mendelssohn painted as well as composed and several of his watercolours were on display. 
A watercolour by Mendelssohn.
On Sundays concerts are held in the concert room that was once used by the Mendelssohns for their own musical pleasure. It is a particular pleasure to hear music in such surroundings and I was lucky I arrived early enough to get a ticket. The ticket seller told me they were often fully booked.

Perhaps these concerts are on the radar of companies who organise music tours as most of the attendees on the day I was there seemed to be English speakers (Australians?)  

That didn't detract from the performance however, which was played and narrated (in German) by the accomplished Subéja Trio, comprising Flautist, Oboist and Pianist. They played a selection of music (including by Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach) but no Mendelssohn.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Leipzig and Dresden

If you know the language of countries you visit, your visit is so much richer. I wish I knew more languages than two. A good example of added richness this visit were the pre-concert lectures, but chatting with chance acquaintances was equally informative. 

After seeing Salome, my head was in the clouds and I got on the wrong tram. It was a lucky mistake as it brought me in contact with a friendly student from Erfurt. We talked about opera, about music and about the difference between Dresden and Leipzig.

‘ Oh yes,’ he said. 'You' are right. There is a big difference between the two cities. Leipzig is very ‘Weltoffen’ (open to the world). Dresden, not so much.’

I had read in Dresden that the city had been at the end of the train line during the days of divided Germany and too far from the border to get western TV, so they had to rely on state television. (How times have changed.) My student friend said that the impact is still being felt. He said that there have been big demonstrations in Dresden against asylum seekers that shocked the rest of the country.

I told him about the woman in Dresden who said she couldn't imagine people wanting to live in a place they weren't born in. She had been astonished to hear I was traveling alone and I doubt I could ever have changed her mind set. My student friend said that in his opinion the changes since 1989 had simply been too much for people to cope with. The wall came down, the old order was replaced by a new order that was not always better, and then there was the refugee crisis. 

My Leipzig landlady on the other hand was an example of Leipzig openness. She said that there were a lot of mixed marriages nowadays, 'whites and blacks; Christians and Muslims, Germans and foreigners' and in her opinion the only thing that mattered was that the couples were nice to each other. 

A lecturer staying at my pension who runs exchange programs with the Leipzig University told me that students love Leipzig. She said it is not only cheaper but 'much cheaper' than studying in the big cities where the price of a room is very high. The waitress at the little Italian restaurant across the road confirmed this. She was from Albania and has spent a year in Hamburg before moving to Leipzig. 
"I've been here seven years now," she said proudly. "I love it here."
Südplatz, Leipzig:
the Italian restaurant
 is on the ground floor

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Spinnerei, Leipzig

Spinnerei, Leipzig
The Spinnerei ist an old cotton spinning factory on a 10 ha block in Leipzig's Plagwitz (get there on the S14 tram) that now houses artist studios, galleries, event spaces and more (including a wonderful art supplies shop).

When the wall came down in 1989 there were still more than 1500 people employed  at the Spinnerei spinning cotton but soon afterwards the site was sold and work dwindled. Alternative art and performances started to take place on the site and over time it has transformed into a vibrant arts hub.

If cities want to stay livable (Sydney City, I'm looking at you) they need to create spaces where their artists can thrive and the Spinnerei ist a good example of what can be achieved with a bit of imagination.

There are tours of the site, so if you are going to Leipzig, look up the timetable. I was sorry I hadn't know about the tours as the site is an interesting one.
Spinnerei, site plan

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Nena on the cover
of Blitz magazine
Brava to Nena, still going strong after all these years. This is the current issue of Blitz magazine,  picked up at the friendly Italia restaurant.

Nena is, I think, the only German singer who hit the top of the pops chart in America. We all know her song 99 Luftballons.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Arabella in Leipzig

It is amazing what a difference a short talk  by the chef dramaturg (head dramatist?) Dr Christian Geltinger made to my understanding of the Strauß operas I saw in Leipzig. He gave a short description of what to expect to see and then explained why the set was chosen. 
Dr Christian Geltinger
(from the Leipzig Oper program)
Both the operas he introduced (Arabella and Frau ohne Schatten) had sets that were particularly relevant to the time in which the operas were written, but if you didn't know that, you might have been left wondering. The Arabella set in particular was very much a comment on the time in which the Opera was set and after the Opera, at the tram stop, when I overheard some Australians complaining about the Arabella production I was sorry they had not been able to hear the pre-concert talk.

Arabella is often talked about as a sort of musical, light and frothy, but there was nothing frothy about this production. All the characters were played straight and without frivolity and it made the Opera work as a serious comment about society and women's choices in society.
Arabella: cast take a bow in front of the completed set

The set was disjointed for much of the Opera, much like floundering society structures at the time, only coming together right at the end of the opera when the characters had learned that dreams are fine, but not to be mistaken for reality.

I really enjoyed this non-musical-like version.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Salome to die for

Wow! Wow! Wow!

I just saw the most fantastic Salome. I had been running on empty today but this opera and music has completely revived me. Now I sit in a tiny Italian restaurant with a candle, a glass of wine and spaghetti, trying to absorb what I have just seen.

The scene and costume designer of Salome, Rosalie, died on 12 June this year ( just a few days ago)  and this production was her last work. The cast dedicated the evening to her.  She is well known for her work and judging by the quality of this production she deserved every accolade she has received.

I had seen the American Met of Salome as a movie. All I remember of that production was an alluring dance and Salome singing to a dreadful severed head. Any explanation of why Salome acts as she does remained a mystery. Perhaps seeing Salome simply as evil seductress (the whore/saint divide) makes sense to the Americans.

In the Leipzig production Salome's behaviour is no longer a riddle. She is shown in the middle of a decadent society with an dissolute mother and abusive step-father. The dance which is central to the opera is no longer a dance of seduction but a story of Salome's abuse as a child. The step father sits taking photos on his smart phone during the dance performed by Salome and figures with masks, including two small girls.

The score is very moving and particularly so when played by the Leipzig orchestra conducted by Ulf Schirmer, who has a reputation as the best Strauss conductor alive. What better place to hear a Strauss festival?  What better place to hear an inspired Salome.

Last but not least, all credit to the marvellous Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid  who sang and acted this difficult role with such persuasiveness. Brava Brava!
Elisabet Strid takes a bow, with cast of Salome

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mendelssohn's Oratorium in Leipzig

I became an instant fan of Mendelssohn on Thursday night. I heard his Oratorium in the Thomaskirche (St Thomas Church) in Leipzig, a church with wonderful acoustics and a long history of musical excellence, both orchestra and choir.
Bach's burial place in Thomaskirche choir stalls
Bach was music director here for over 20 years and his bones are buried in the choir stalls of the church. He was originally buried elsewhere but in 1945 it was decided to bring the bones to St Thomas for safe keeping. It was considered so urgent that they were dug up and taken by wheelbarrow through the bombed city. The wheelbarrower delivered them to the the church with the words "So I've brought you Bach then". 

I found the Oratorium an emotional experience. Hearing this music swell through this magnificent church sent my thoughts to those departed. I am sure the Mendelssohn family's personal history affected me as well.   I kept thinking of how Mendelssohn would have felt when writing  it. The most beautiful music accompanied the end of the story of the stoning of St Stephen, where he, being stoned, called on God to accept his soul and fell asleep.
From the program
I felt so fortunate to be able to hear this music in this city and in this church. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Arriving in Leipzig

I arrived in Leipzig on Wednesday and couldn't believe the difference to Dresden. I thought they must be similar, being so close (an hour and fifteen minutes by train) but the are very different cities.  In Dresden I felt very DDR but in Leipzig I have landed in a very buzzy area. Perhaps Dresden would have felt like Leipzig does now if it had not been fire bombed in 1945, who knows. The difference between the feel of the two cities in 2017 though is remarkable.

A bit of the old East survives in Leipzig. Like Dresden, Leipzig does not have an information office in the main station. It is hidden in the city center. Perhaps they imagine tourists parachute in? I had a friendly but very blunt woman from the train service tell me she can only sell tickets and the info office is at the market and I should go there (but how?) 

Luckily I had researched the place before I came and knew I had to get the #10 tram to my lodgings. Eastern Google seems to be a bit behind the times too as Google maps doesn't list Leipzig trams. They would have sent me by train and a very long walk whereas the #10 tram took me to my door. 
Pension stairs - lucky my suitcase is not heavy.
I am in a pension here with old fashioned keys,  spacious room and comfortable bed. What more could one wish for? 

Well WiFi. When I log on with the correct password the WiFi doesn't connect. The manageress here tells me the WiFi here is very doubtful.
"What can you do?" she says spreading her hands.

So I am very glad I bought a big data package from AldiTalk when I arrived as it looks as if I'll need it here in Leipzig.
My street

Dresden - youth culture

Äussere Neustadt

If you take the tram from Dresden's central station over the River Elbe to Neustadt then walk north, you reach Äussere (Outer) Neustadt. This is where alternative youth prefer to live and the buildings here are older than the old-looking buildings in the center which are mostly reconstructions. 

I went in the morning when it was very quiet with most shops still shut (one had a sign saying "open at 17:00") but wandering through the courtyards was still a pleasure as many of the buildings have been decorated with interesting artwork, some of which, like the piping below, was functional as well as decorative. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Semperoper in Dresden

Semperoper: level 1 foyer
Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Serial) was on at the Semperoper in Dresden during my stay so I went to see it although it is not an opera I would have chosen, because I was keen to see a performance in the Semperoper.

My seat neighbour told me she would not have gone either except that she had read in the local paper that the production was witty with lots of visual gags.
 “You have to be careful what you see nowadays,” she said. “I have been disappointed too often.”

My neighbour’s newspaper was right. It was a witty production (by Michael Dijkema) and the wit saved it as the story is silly, and three hours long. I didn't know any of the singers but they were all good.

The performance took place in a swamp, complete with crocodile and all of the performers wore elaborately muddy eastern style boots and clothes with mud encrusted hems. They often got stuck in the swamp. The German heros were silly when they weren't singing (the silly story is punctuated with lovely arias) and the Turkish servant was a buffoon. The only character to emerge honourably from the story was the evil looking Turkish Pasha.

There was a lot of spoken dialogue and I'm not sure how much was from Mozart and how much was added as I hadn't seen this opera previously.  The spoken and sung dialogue appeared as subtitles above the performers in both German and English so I imagine a lot of foreigners visit the Semperoper for a performance while they are here.

I found the opera rather long, but that gave me time to admire my surroundings. The building itself is a stunner. A prime example of Baroque building style, it was largely destroyed in the last months of the second world war. It remained a shell until rebuilding started in 1968. It was completed in 1985,  exactly 40 years after it was destroyed.

The air conditioning is interesting. Each seat has its own grill so the air gently rises instead of being blown down from above.

Top of chair with air-con vent
When you aren't admiring the air-conditioning you can look up and admire the ceiling with its depicted conductors, or the fire curtain which my neighbour told me was saved from the bombing and was carried through the streets in profession when the rebuilding was complete.
Portraits of conductors on the ceiling of the Semperoper

Semperoper: curtain saved from the firestorm.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dresden : the hill from 1813

Dresden's "old city" has some beautiful old buildings, buildings which have been re-created from post war rubble, some like the Semper Oper during DDR times and other like the Frauenkirche, relatively recently. 

There is a lot of Dresden though that is not so beautiful. As trams criss cross the inner city much of what you see are square soulless DDR-and-moderrn blocks planted in still-empty land. I can't help but think of all those refugees bombed to oblivion in 1945. 
View from my window. The building on the left is an office block, residential on the right

This is the view from my window. The building is one tram stop from the station and is part Hotel, part hostel. It looks out over offices and squat apartment buildings on my side and the railway line on the other side - I am glad I requested a quiet room when I booked as it has been too hot to keep the windows shut. 
View over the train track.
Yellow part is hostel, white part is Hotel.
At every corner you are reminded of this city's turbulent past. In a city park a small monument with a jar of flowers in front of it was a commemoration of "The Red Army".  I wondered who put the flowers there.

Commemorating the Red Army.
On Sunday I discovered another historical memorial.  Sunday was a very hot day in Dresden and about 6 o'clock I looked for somewhere cool to eat. There were plenty of places open at the station nearby but not much else in the area. I checked out Google maps and discovered a cafe in a small park a few blocks away. Google said it was open and the menu looked solid old-fashioned Germany fare.

The park was shady and pleasant, perched on a small hill, a lovely spot on a hot afternoon but there were not very many people there. They served beer and Wiener Wurstchen with toast, so that was what I ordered.

An elderly couple sat down at my table as it was the only table of the three with seats to spare. (It turned out all the people at the café knew each other.) They told me the hill was created in 1813 to stop Napoleon's invading army. They came close, but not to this spot. You get the feeling in Dresden that the past is very much present, the distant past as well as the recent past.

The elderly woman said she could not understand people who leave the place they are born in. They were from near by and the cafe was their ‘local’.  She looked around at the others and said, " They are all from here. They live even closer than we do."

The 'hill' with the cafe between the trees.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Maximilian Schnaus (*1986)

In the center of Dresden, near the Frauenkirche is a booth selling festival tickets. I asked there about a good place to get a salad. 

They not only recommended Vapiano restaurant on the other side of the square (good choice), but told me about a free pre-concert concert taking place at 7pm in the Frauenkirche. It was an organ concert by Maximilian Schnaus, who has a stipend with Stiftung Kunst und Musik für Dresden. He was playing his work Come Sweetest Death. 

I went, primarily to have a chance of seeing the inside of the church  before dark, but oh how glad I was that I went.

I usually find organ music rather boring as it never seems to change - but not this time. It was exactly the sort of music one would expect of a 21st century composer and the sort of music you wished you heard more often.

It began with sounds of things water somewhere far away (reminded me of Wagner's Rheingold) and high pitched distant birds then moved slowly into the loudest thunder. I wondered if it might  shake the church foundations. There was no room for boredom in the half hour piece which ended with the sweetest of melodies.

Thank you Maximilian Schnaus!
Frauenkirche: ceiling

Monday, June 12, 2017

Rienzi at the Frauenkirche

In Dresden's Frauenkirche, listening to the Overture from Wagner's Reinzi, then mezzo-soprano Waltroud Meier singing Straus' Four Last Songs, I wonder, ' have I have died and gone to heaven?'

But no, I am alive and fulfilling a long held dream: to visit the Frauenkirche in Dresden and hear a concert. That is should include something written by Wagner then songs sung by Waltraud Meier is the unbelievable dream. 

The music (which I heard last night after a train trip from Hamburg) put me on such a 'high' that I was still spinning and sleepless at 2am.

Waltraud Meier and festival orchestra take a bow.
I was on level two, high above the performers (there is also a level 3) but the acoustics were wonderful and I heard every word. The Rienzi overture was fabulous and made me want to return for a Wagner binge.

 The Frauenkirche was destroyed during the second world war and rebuilt between 1994 and 2005.  During the intermission a local audience member told me he had studied in Dresden and had always hoped the pile of rubble in the city center where the Frauenkirche once was might one day be rebuilt. He said that when they did restart building they laid all the stones out in the city square, hoping to reuse them with use of a computer.  The German building rules, however, require that stones which have been subject to fire be tested for stability and when these stones were tested many of them, being sandstone, were found to be unstable. Those that are original are dark, the new stones are light coloured. The building is overwhelmingly light coloured. 

After the concert: Frauenkirche at night

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Roses bursting into flower

Despite Hamburg's recent spell of 13C weather, the roses have suddenly burst into flower. This one is an old English rose with a very sweet scent. It is flowering as if its life depended on it.
Old English Rose with antique clock

Thursday, June 08, 2017


Honeysuckle in a white vase
Early summer in Hamburg and honeysuckle climbing up the trellis bursts into flower.

Summer cool

The warm weather that spread North from Spain last week is a distant memory. Today is already June 7th but it is 13C in Hamburg and raining.

 I am very pleased I packed some woollies. I am wearing them all.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Hamburg: reclaim your neighbourhood

Right in the middle of Hamburg, near the music hall, is a neighbourhood that has been reclaimed by its citizens and remodelled along more homely lines. Books line the walls of a makeshift library in an alleyway leading to a courtyard. The courtyard has been planted with trees and vines, tables and chairs stand ready for use. 
It is not hard to make a neighbourhood feel like home. All you need is willing citizens and a city council that understands.